Borneo travel guide

Despite having opened up greatly to visitors in the past few decades, Borneo remains a road less travelled, where new species continue to be discovered each month. Sadly, it has also lured poachers, loggers, miners and farmers – who between them demolished over 50 percent of Indonesian Borneo’s rainforests in just 15 years, and whose presence threatens the existence of creatures such as the orangutan, as well as ways of life that have persisted for centuries.
A world of carnivorous plants, pendulously-nosed monkeys, and mud-spewing volcanoes, Borneo has enticed travellers, biologists and photographers for decades.
The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are now well equipped for visitors, boasting wildlife sanctuaries, world-class dive resorts and mountain treks. But to get truly lost in this remote island, it’s worth heading into Indonesian Kalimantan, whose jungles must be navigated by river. Its landscapes and people remain largely unchanged by tourism, and as the home of most of the island’s remaining orangutans, responsible Borneo holidays here could play an essential part in securing their future.

A Borneo holiday is...

“one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature herself,” according to Charles Darwin.

A Borneo holiday isn't...

a trip to one country. It's a huge island, containing bits of Malaysia, Indonesia and all of Brunei.

What we rate & what we don't


Indonesian Borneo

There are many reasons why Kalimantan is less visited on Borneo holidays: there are no international flights, infrastructure is more basic, English is less widely spoken... but mainly it’s simply because people don’t know enough about it. The food is superb, the people welcoming, there are far more orangutans than in Malaysia and you’ll get a true sense of having left the beaten track far behind.


You may not automatically put Borneo and cycling together, but it’s a popular leisure activity among local people here and Borneo makes a great destination for a holiday on two wheels. Sarawak is particularly well set up for cyclists, with biking infrastructure in place and experienced guides, so you can pedal around its capital Kuching then on through mountain trails, national parks and small villages.

Longhouse homestays

Borneo has luxurious lodges, remote resorts and hip hotels, and it’s easy to wonder why you would want to trade this in for a rustic longhouse homestay, sharing with a dozen local families. But Borneo’s culture is seductive, and the warm welcome, traditional dances, home cooked food and cheeky glass or three of rice wine are sure to change your mind – and make you realise that richness is relative.

Traditional skills

Borneo’s tribes may no longer be the headhunters of the past – but they still have many unique skills which risk being lost as they migrate to the cities. Creating batik textiles; weaving intricate bead jewellery, rattan baskets and mats; hunting with a blowpipe; and cooking with the island’s unique ingredients are some of the unusual skills you can learn during a cultural Borneo holiday.

Weird wildlife

Borneo’s exotic creatures are hyped by all... but they don’t disappoint. Long-limbed orangutans are the huge draw, but proboscis monkeys – only found here – are perpetual crowd pleasers, and the chance of spotting the more elusive clouded leopards, tiny tarsiers, slow lorises, sun bears and pygmy elephants keep wildlife fans on their toes.

Cultural pick‘n’mix

Home to sea gypsies, longhouse-dwelling communities and former head hunters, a Borneo holiday has everything a cultural traveller could ask for. There’s plenty of chance to get stuck in, with floating markets, living museums and blowpipe demonstrations, but don’t overlook the modern cities, with Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and Filipino fusions, temples, music festivals and ethnology museums.

Creative cuisine

If you’re a fan of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Filipino or Indonesian food, you’ll find something to savour in Borneo. The coastline and rivers produce abundant fish, which is just as tasty from a streetside stall as it is in a high-end restaurant, flavoured with coconut milk, spices, chilli and lemongrass. Superbly prepared tandoori and dim sum can be found here, and vegetarians won’t go hungry either.

Island life

Borneo’s many little islands each have their own speciality – from castaway-style desert islets to tranquil, luxury resorts; sanctuaries for marine and forest wildlife and reef-ringed diving Meccas. Even those who normally avoid lounging on the sand will appreciate a rest after a long-haul flight – or after an epic holiday climbing mountains and trudging through leech-filled swamps – and there’s an island for all tastes.

Modern waterfronts

The glitzy, redeveloped waterfronts of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are a glass façade of luxury hotels, shopping malls and 'lifestyle centres', designed to hurl these cities into the 21st century. Visit Kuching’s 900m-long esplanade for the fountains, restored Chinese pagoda and views of local boats – but avoid the restaurants at both waterfronts: the 'designer' restaurant bill will quickly take the shine off.

Cuddling orangutans

As people seek “meaningful” Borneo holidays, and “giving back” becomes a buzzword, volunteering with endangered wildlife seems to tick many boxes. But thanks to the risk of transmitting diseases and habituation to humans, you should never touch an orangutan, and any organisation promoting this has their own interests at heart, not the wildlife. Stick to construction and reforestation work – it’s better for everyone.

Cute, exotic pets

Videos of a slow loris being tickled have catapulted it into the YouTube hall of fame – but its cuteness could cause its own demise. Slow lorises, along with baby orangutans and sun bear cubs are all in demand as illegal pets, with poaching on the increase. If they don’t die during capture or transportation, they are doomed to a miserable life in tiny enclosures – with teeth or claws removed.

“Helpful” donations

When visiting a local community, bringing a gift is a nice gesture in any culture. However, what is helpful and appropriate is not so easy to guess. Sweets are unhealthy, alcohol is often frowned upon in Islamic regions, and pens and books can be useless. So check with your guide – the results may be unexpected, with suggestions ranging from blocks of salt to stinky fish paste.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Borneo or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking in Borneo

Sabah’s Kadazan people flavour their food with a slightly sour, wild mango called Bambangan. It’s also pickled and served as an accompaniment. They also have their own fragrant version of sushi, made with raw mackerel, ginger, shallots, chilli and lime.

Sarawak’s Iban tribe eat Manok Pansoh: chicken, mushrooms and lemongrass stuffed into bamboo tubes and cooked over an open fire.

Popular with indigenous tribes but less so with tourists is the spongy centre of the sago palm. It’s chewy, gooey and rather tasteless.
Estimated to be around 130 million years old, Borneo’s rainforest is the most ancient on earth.

People & language

Borneo’s native people are the Dayak – an all-encompassing term referring to 20 million people made up of over 200 tribes found mainly in the interior. The island’s Chinese, Indian and Filipino immigrants also have a huge cultural and culinary influence, as well as the Malaysian, Indonesian and Bruneian people.

Sabah's boat-dwelling Bajau traditionally never set foot on land.

Ancestors of the Barito may have been some of the first colonisers of Madagascar, over 1,000 years ago.

Gifts & shopping

Exquisite Batik fabric originated from Indonesia – batik of varying colours, origins and qualities can be found across Borneo. Traditional colours include dark brown and indigo; the priciest cloth may take months to create.

Handwoven silk shawls are a gorgeous, luxury souvenir from your Borneo holiday. Some stores have in-house workshops where you can see your items being skillfully created.

Sarawak Craft Council is a non-profit shop in Kuching selling a selection of crafts from many ethnic groups.

Do not buy items made from tortoiseshell, coral, feathers or any other endangered species.
Borneo is the world’s third largest island – after Greenland and New Guinea.

How much does it cost?

Bowl of noodles in a Malaysian market: 90p

Meal in an Indonesian restaurant: £5.20

Bus from Sandakan to Sepilok: 75p each way

Adopting an orangutan for a year: from £30

A brief history of Borneo

Borneo’s location at the maritime crossroads of Indonesia, China, Malaysia, India and the Philippines ensured that it was a vital trading post, centuries before the first waves of European sailors stumbled across this vast island, which has never been united under a single government. The Portuguese, Spanish, British and Dutch traded with and divided up the island between them – with Sabah becoming British North Borneo, and the Dutch having control over Kalimantan from the 19th century. Read more
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fish Ho Hong Yun] [Is/Isn't: Jesse Schoff] [Underrated: zakky rachmadi] [Rated: Danielle Brigida] [Overrated: Dustin Iskandar] [People & language: johnjodeery] [How much does it cost: sunriseOdyssey]